Chris Ho Argues Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. Before CA Supreme Court

Chris Ho Argues Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. Before CA Supreme Court
Case has major implications for undocumented workers in California
April 2, 2014

Today, LAS-ELC Senior Staff Attorney Chris Ho appeared before the California Supreme Court and argued on behalf of the plaintiff in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., a case that considers whether the workplace protections provided by California law apply to all employees -- and, in particular, those who are undocumented.

in 2002, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB) that limited certain remedies for unlawfully-fired undocumented workers under the National Labor Relations Act, a union organizing statute, the California Legislature swiftly enacted legislation to reaffirm and ensure that undocumented workers remained entitled to the full panoply of rights and remedies afforded to all workers under California law. 

This bill, known as SB 1818, stated in no uncertain terms that “[a]ll protections, rights, and remedies available under state law, except any reinstatement remedy prohibited by federal law, are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status who have applied for employment, or who are or who have been employed, in this state.”

Vicente Salas was employed Sierra Chemical Company at its Stockton facility for over three years.  While working there, he injured his back.  Although Sierra initially assigned him to modified duties to accommodate his injury, it stopped doing so after he filed a workers’ compensation claim.  In early 2007, Mr. Salas’s supervisor told him that he could not return to work unless he was “100% recovered” from the injury, and fired Mr. Salas when he said he was unable to do so.

Mr. Salas subsequently filed a Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) disability discrimination lawsuit against Sierra, alleging that it had violated its legal duty to reasonably accommodate his back injury, and then fired him because of his disability and because he had filed his workers’ compensation claim. 

On the eve of trial, however, Sierra produced a declaration from a person in North Carolina who claimed that he was the holder of the Social Security number (SSN) Mr. Salas used to obtain his job. The company alleged this declaration proved conclusively that Mr. Salas was undocumented, and that his lawsuit should therefore be thrown out because, Sierra claimed, it would never had hired him had it believed he was undocumented.

Mr. Salas responded that this eleventh-hour declaration, which was devoid of any evidence or detail, proved nothing about his work status.  But more importantly, Mr. Salas argued that under California law -- especially as restated and clarified by the Legislature in SB 1818 -- his immigration status was in any case completely irrelevant to his workplace rights and his ability to challenge Sierra’s discriminatory actions.

In early 2010, the trial court reviewed the SSN declaration and rejected Sierra’s motion to dismiss, determining that nothing in it prevented Mr. Salas’s claims from going to trial.  However, the California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court decision, concluding not only that Sierra had proven that Mr. Salas was undocumented, but also that his discrimination lawsuit against Sierra should be dismissed altogether as a result. 

But in reaching its result, the Court of Appeal ignored SB 1818’s clear reaffirmation that undocumented workers are fully protected by state laws.  It also brushed aside longstanding legal precedent establishing that civil rights cases, because of their great public importance, must be allowed to proceed to trial despite the employers’ accusations that the plaintiffs in those cases had allegedly engaged in some form of wrongdoing.

“The Court of Appeal’s decision in this case went to extreme lengths in its attempt to write SB 1818 out of the picture,” said Mr. Ho.  “In so doing, it not only thwarted the will of the Legislature as expressed in this bill, which could not possibly been clearer that immigration status is not a factor in whom our state’s laws protect.  In fact, the Court of Appeal’s decision would give unprincipled employers a free pass to violate their workers’ rights, because they would face none of the legal consequences of their actions.”

For these reasons, in 2011 LAS-ELC joined the Salas case and asked the California Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeal’s opinion dismissing the case.  The Supreme Court unanimously granted that request. In the oral argument before the Court on Wednesday, Mr. Salas asserted his position that the Court of Appeal erred by ignoring SB 1818 and dismissing Mr. Salas’s case based on the declaration proffered by Sierra  - and that, as a result his discrimination claims should be fully reinstated and allowed to go to trial.

The Court will issue its decision in the Salas case by early July.  We are hopeful that the Court will agree that SB 1818 means what it says – that an employee’s lack of immigration status does not deprive him or her of the equal protection of California’s workplace laws – and allow Mr. Salas to have his day in court on the merits of his claims.